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Cultivating silence: Sweet nothings in a music teacher’s ear

Kim Rosen for The Globe and Mail

You might think the hardest thing about being an elementary-school music teacher would be getting the pupils to produce a beautiful sound: head tone in singing; crispness in drumming; fullness in the chords of the ukulele, and gentleness and clarity in recorder melodies. Music that is listenable, even if not produced by one's own beloved offspring.

Not so. I am often astonished by my students' abilities to create and perform with commitment and artistry. If random people were teleported into one of my concerts, I think they'd be impressed – not because the children are so goshdarncute, but because of their innate musicianship and ability to understand when something is not just good enough, but great.

No, the problem is not creating the sound. It is cultivating the silences.

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All of the ages are noisy in their own ways. In kindergarten, I have to start training them not to wave and call to their parents during piano introductions. In Grades 1 and 2, children want to turn to their friends the second a song is complete and excitedly talk about it. They fiddle with cabasas, monkey with shakers and doodle around with drums while the solo is going on.

At the beginning of the year I spend a lot of time reinforcing routines concerning noise. Let the song happen, I counsel. Imagine if you went to hear an orchestra perform and the musicians played any time they wanted. What if the cymbals clanged during the flute feature? We role-play silly symphonic scenarios, have a giggle and then get back to work.

Older kids are challenging in a different way. I employ a more collaborative style with them, and they're yap-yap-yappy with useful suggestions as well as a hefty dose of useless shenanigans. It takes all my skill to harness and guide their bubbling ideas, while also getting them to pipe down once in a while and let the music unfold.

We work on understanding the beauty of a rest, which is harder for roiling 10-year-olds than one might imagine. We do audition activities, taking a familiar song and performing it with stop-and-go signals that require pupils to continue playing or singing internally during the halted segments. We dance, and feel both the stillness and the movement, positive and negative. After singing a lovely piece in harmony for the first time, we let the last phrase float out the window and away while we remain quiet and reflective for a moment. The music happens as much in the silences as it does in the sounds. After a while, they get it. They don't just parrot a tired trope back to me, they feel its truth.

The value of understanding simplicity and stillness extends beyond the music room, too. When I observe the differences between my childhood and that of my own kids, I realize that one of the biggest difficulties they face is the lack of quiet in their lives.

Now, the times that I was able to experience tranquility were often externally imposed – given my druthers, I would have been with my pals, of course. But if friends were busy and I wasn't allowed to get on the phone one more time, had been told, "Dear, do something else besides watch TV," and was sick of practising piano, I would shuffle to my room and throw myself on the bed in a fit of my-life-is-so-boring-why-am-I-such-a-loser self-pity. I'd grump around for a while, stare at the ceiling, and when I couldn't sustain that any longer, I would settle down. Usually I'd read, or fill journals with rants and reflections, or listen mindfully to music. When I emerged a few hours later, my brain would still be feeling sorry for me but my heart and soul would know better.

This generation has little tranquil time, it seems. They live amid the flashing of screens and background music playing everywhere from bathrooms to classrooms. They tumble down rabbit holes while binge-watching Netflix, sit in awful traffic with cursing parents while being driven to activities. Worst of all is their constant texting, which must be like a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing incessantly around their ears.

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Left to their own devices (and devices), teens will talk obsessively, unmoderated by any adult "pipe down, will ya" admonitions. They say too much and misunderstand too frequently, and oh, the ensuing drama, drama, drama! It clutters their developing brains with minutiae, and the deluge is relentless. My daughter actually tossed her phone across the room the other night. "So tired of talking," she said to it. "What did your friends want?" I asked. "Nothing," she replied. I believed her.

She then went off to her room. I don't know what she did there, but I hope it wasn't much of anything. Fanciful thinking on my part, surely.

I like to imagine that because she's a musician like her mother she knows how to observe a rest; how to take it down to a pianissimo from time to time so people will have to lean in to connect; that you don't throw every instrument in the classroom at an arrangement, that every tune needs layered textures and room for improvisation.

I hope she, like all the children in my life, learns how much music and simple beauty can be found in the spaces between the notes.

Maribeth Graham lives in Port Credit, Ont.

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